A faction of the animal-rights movement demands an end to hunting. In the South, that means war.
Atlanta Magazine | October1991
When the wild boar died, Richard Price was too tired to even crawl out of the mud. For four hours he had tracked the baying hounds through the hardwood bottoms and underbrush to a slough in the Tennessee hills where the hog had retreated, cornered between the red mud walls and the dogs’ hellish intent.
At the gully’s edge, Price’s guide had studied the backup sidearm strapped to the hunter’s hip. “Kinda chicken s___, ain’t it?”
As if challenged by his guide’s judgment, Richard Price, an Atlanta homicide detective and avid trophy hunter, slipped off the holster. He slid a long knife from its sheath, crossed the creek and climbed onto a stump. Gathering a breath for the climax, he springboarded himself above the muddy wallow of tusks and snarling hounds, and into the rush of death.
Several weeks later, in subdued contrast, a woman named Hilary Smith imbibes the May sunshine at Good Ol’ Days in Buckhead. Smith is a vegan, she says, eats nothing with a “mother earth face.” Puffing a succession of Camels and calmly pulling back her third cold beer, she’s as cool as the stony jade of her eyes. “There was a time when I would have stood up and yelled at a hunter, ‘You’re f___ing disgusting!’ But that’s not the way to get things done,” she says.
On the patio table is the May issue of Alternatives, laid open to the advertisement Smith has placed in the tabloid on behalf of Friends of Animals (FoA), a national animal-rights group. The bold print header is vaguely reminiscent of Price’s disparaging guide: HUNTING: THE SPORT OF COWARDS.
The text of the advertisement, however, deals less with hunter ethics than with the right to hunt on National Wildlife Refuges, a volatile subtheme in the battle now being waged over America’s autumnal heritage, a war in which the complexities of looming social change and ecological survival are narrowing down to a public-relations version of survival of the fittest.
“I don’t think the headline is unfair,” says Smith, who as a board member of Atlanta FoA and an advocate of several other animal-rights groups, devotes her personal time and savings to disseminating the case against hunting. “It’s to capture the attention of an audience that would be sympathetic to our cause.”
The broad animal-rights movement of the last two decades has stigmatized fur wearing, vivisection and the free infliction of man’s cancers, addictions and spiritual debts upon research animals. Now, a latent element of that movement has surged, perhaps to leave a legacy of self-exile and alienation, or one of social revolution. There is no question its goals exceed even those of its animal activist predecessors. It wants to take on America’s hunters. The killing, anti-hunters say, is dead wrong.
In the vale of this controversy are two small but vocal groups, each claiming the moral high ground, each unwilling to concede even the slightest battle for fear of losing the war. They espouse dichotomous world views, that of man as an interacting predator or as the benign guardian; and they are polarized on the fate of an environment so altered by man that none can say with certainty which of the roles constitutes fealty to nature’s order. Thus sweeping abstractions of free will, ethics and destiny pervade hunting controversies, producing a confused logic that leaves unresolved the question of man’s animal essence.
LANDING ONE KNEE on the boar’s bristled spine, Richard Price made a grab for its hind legs, hog-tying them in his left hand as he flashed the blade around in his right. To avoid killing one of the dogs, he had to stab backhanded, and in a lightning-fast arc drove home the knife up to its brass crossguard. In less than three minutes, the squealing was over. Price sat back in the brown and claret water, and with the knife handle still fused in his grip, knew that the last living odor puffing from a hole in the hog’s chest was . . . was reality.
As with any conflict destined to test the resolve of a society, reality is often entangled in a web of perception. And with both hunters and anti-hunters more than ever soliciting approval of the 93 percent of Americans who do not hunt, it is, seemingly, only the web that matters. George Reiger, conservation editor for Field & Stream has called the controversy “the battle for the nonhunting public’s soul.”
Practiced in the spirit of self-truth, hunting is a logical communion with the primitive human instinct to feed on meat. Long since progressed from a subsistence measure, however, modern sport hunting is being criticized as a violent anachronism that offers no promise in human advancement, nor in the welfare of the environment. Indeed, wildlife management for the benefit of hunters is even being blamed for distortions to ecosystems that prohibit biological diversity by focusing on a narrow spectrum of game species. Additionally, critics maintain that hunters’ emphasis on taking prime trophy animals contradicts the process of natural selection, leaving weak and inferior animals to propagate, contributing to what some activists call evolution in reverse.
Nonetheless, hunters champion their sport as mankind’s traditional role in nature, wholesome recreation that is both biologically and economically necessary to provide for wildlife that, victimized by pandemic urbanization, pollution and land development, could otherwise perish. Through excise taxes, license fees and duck stamps, sport hunting has contributed over $2.5 billion to conservation in the last 50 years, and secured nearly 8 million acres of state and federal wildlife habitat. Conceived by hunters during the Depression era, when indigenous species such as white-tailed deer and wild turkey had all but succumbed to rapacious market hunting, the modern wildlife management system of harvest regulations and user-pay funding was vital to their recovery. Supplemented by enormous private contributions by sportsmen and sportswomen, advocates offer this as a shining example of the conservation ethic pervasive among hunters, that of putting more into the system than one takes out. But this classic paradox of the killer as savior has also contributed to a lack of public understanding, and a steady confluence of forces that now challenge its justification.
Although many mainstream environmental groups, such as The Sierra Club or Audubon Society, often oppose hunts they consider biologically unsound, orthodox anti-hunting has its roots in the national network of animal-welfare organizations that speak for the humane treatment of individual animals. “It’s indisputable that this country has always engaged in improving the lot of all people. The next logical group for consideration is nonhuman animals,” says Fund for Animals National Director Wayne Pacelle, the 26-year-old protege of Fund founder and patriarchal activist Cleveland Amory, who for decades has been one of America’s most vehement critics of sport hunting.
In the early ’70s, Amory pioneered anti-hunting provocation with publication of Man Kind?, a voluminous and emotionally charged satire of recreational hunting that spawned a generation of self-styled Amoryites. Since that time, hard-line anti-hunters have maintained at least one common perspective. As Hilary Smith asks, “Who’s to say hunters don’t enjoy killing?”’
A timeworn contention, it cuts like never before. Coupled with mounting pressures on wildlife from loss of habitat and pollution, the argument is potentially devastating to the acceptance American hunters have so long enjoyed; one more problem of public relations that traces directly to the very terms sport and recreational, by which sport hunters have traditionally separated themselves from the dark world of poachers and wanton killers.
Many hunters, however, are less than moved by attempts to assign them their motives. “It’s a challenge, and if there is challenge in something it is a sport,” says Richard Price. “But to say we’re out to kill for fun is ridiculous. Challenge is everything, and shooting the animal is anticlimactic.” But this traditional response, most eloquently proposed by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in Meditations on Hunting (“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted”), holds little appeasement for those to whom it does nothing but aggravate its own question. If killing is anticlimactic, then why kill?
The catalyst to this controversy is the fundamental philosophical chasm between hunters and anti-hunters. From the hunter’s perspective, wildlife is a renewable resource, to be used wisely by humans and replenished through modern wildlife conservation, which uses hunting not only as an absolute tool to control populations within the carrying capacity of the land, but as an economic base. It is the science of population dynamics, uncomfortably shackled to the concept that, in today’s distorted ecosystems, wildlife must not only be protected from man, but also from nature.
From the viewpoint of animal activists, Homo sapiens is just one more part of the animal world, all equivalent creatures more in need of man’s affinity and compassion than intervention. “I personally don’t believe animals are a resource to be used by humans,” says Pacelle.
Pacelle’s attitude is typical of the animal-rights faith, a unique blend of philosophic romanticism, New Age spirituality, vegetarianism and scattered empirical data. Although animal rights is a splinter group of the larger environmental movement, its foster community of anti-hunters has crystallized the issue of man versus nature like no other element of the overall environmental issue.
Out of the anti-hunters’ grass-roots, right-makes-might optimism, several unwavering points of contention have emerged. Killing for sport is being condemned as a cruel and ecologically destructive practice, propagated through a wildlife management system unrepresentative of the vast majority of Americans who do not hunt. “We are captives of a political system that does not serve the country nor the real needs of wildlife,” says Georgia Earth Alliance member John Eberhart. “It serves a political constituency. Hunters.”
National anti-hunting groups such as Fund for Animals have therefore rejected the wildlife management system by withholding traditional monetary contributions. Instead, they have exploited the conduits of politics, the courts and the media. Access to the press and success in publicizing emotional, though often statistically isolated issues, is greatly responsible for the recent thrust of anti-hunting momentum.
So far, the greatest rallying point for hunt-bashers everywhere has come in Montana, where for the last five years Yellowstone bison that wander out of the park in search of winter forage, thereby posing an unquantified threat of transmitting brucellosis disease to adjacent cattle operations, have been shot by lottery-drawn Montana hunters. Following the devastating fires of 1988, 569 displaced buffalo lumbered over the border and into a three-month long slaughter. Video images of the National Park Service’s woolly symbol, shot dead at 10 yards by jubilant trophy seekers, made the 6 o’clock news rounds from Japan to Germany, enraged many Americans and prompted a congressional investigation. Fearing further negative publicity, the 1991 Montana state legislature disbanded the hunt. And although many hunters, priding themselves on the ethic of fair-chase, had silently disavowed the spectacle, it was the anti-hunters who came from as far away as California and Maryland to stand in front of loaded rifles, whack stupefied buffalo killers with ski poles and angrily plead with them not to shoot, who scored the public-relations victory.
Since then hunt disruptions have become so widespread that 41 states have now passed hunter harassment laws, hoping to stymie future protests, which in the past have included everything from hounding hunters with bullhorns and spreading human hair and urine in hunted areas, to shooting out the engine blocks of hunters’ vehicles. Georgia ratified its legislation last year.
With the increased memberships and donations that the martyr-like images of hunt disruptions generate, well-financed elements of the movement have advanced their attack through the judicial system, often rejuvenating funds through out-of-court settlements with unprepared government agencies. Fund for Animals, for example, has underwritten costly litigation nationwide, taking individual states and even the federal government to the wall on a variety of hunting-related issues.
Wayne Pacelle, who has been arrested four times for interfering with hunters, says, “We think protesting at the site, where the hunter is identifiable, is a very appropriate form of airing our viewpoint. Most state’s harassment laws are on shaky constitutional ground.” Having successfully challenged and overturned Connecticut’s laws, anti-hunters have subsequently increased protests in a number of states to incite arrests and bring more harassment cases before the courts.
Senators Wyche Fowler (D-GA) and Conrad Bums (R-MT) in June introduced a federal bill that would provide a constitutional cohesiveness perhaps lacking in state legislation. But its title, the Recreational Hunting Safety and Preservation Act, indirectly reflects the intimidating images many hunters project, and the potential for violence that anti-hunters have all along tried to capitalize on. One local outdoor journalist, perhaps naive to anti-hunters’ adeptness at turning to their own benefit seemingly anything hunters say or do, wrote in a commendation of Georgia Game and Fish’s vow to uphold hunter’s rights, “Hunters are usually well-armed, have extremely strong feelings about their hunting rights, and tend to become highly irritated when outsiders interfere with them.”
Wayne Pacelle mines public-relations gold from such inferences of retaliation. “I can’t think of any group that is potentially more hostile. … I certainly watch my back. But I figure if it’s an arrow, I’ll just be wounded,” he says, satirizing what anti-hunters consider the most reprehensible of sport weapons, the bow and arrow.
In the argument against cruelty, to which the public is most sensitive, archery hunters accused of inflicting widespread crippling have indeed suffered the first wave of anti-hunting assaults. Firing out temporary restraining orders and injunctions like legal cannonballs, anti-hunters have blocked a number of public bow hunts, each a significant battle in their divide-and-conquer strategy. The game plan potentially pits gun hunters against archers and meat stalkers against the trophy hounds. It creates divisiveness between the state and federal governments and between hunters and game managers accused of bowing to anti-hunting pressures.
Having tracked events in anti-hunting hot spots such as the suburban Northeast and California, Georgia’s outdoor press was abuzz last fall with the-anti’s-are-coming!—predictions of confrontations that never materialized. But the anxiety remains, perhaps fueled by some dramatic shifts in statistics. While Georgia Division of Game and Fish reports a decrease of 16,000 licensed hunters in the past two years, the Atlanta chapter of Friends of Animals has grown from a core of five people to 3,000 eager members in only three years. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and a host of similar organizations also have strong memberships in Atlanta. Friends of Animals board member Cheryl McAuliffe says, “There was a lot of talk last year about organizing a demonstration, but I kept saying we weren’t ready.” According to FoA board member Smith, however, this year has “great potential.”
It is one thing to stifle hunts for depleted species in California or a national park; quite another, however, to take away the Southerner’s quail shoot, his deer stands and duck blinds, and at the same time assault his moral integrity.
Ironically, the outdoor media’s insensitivity to those who get queasy wading through magazine racks choked with photos of eviscerated, wall-eyed deer has been partly responsible for instilling crusader-like zeal in anti-hunters, as well as aggravating the hunters’ overall deficit in public goodwill. In his 1974 book Man Kind?, Cleveland Amory wrote that the three publications most responsible for turning the public against hunting were, in order, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, and Field & Stream. “Having an outdoor writer is like having an abortion columnist,” says Pacelle.
Nothing, however, swells the tide of mistrust as much as occasional but tragic carelessness in the field. When two years ago Maine housewife Karen Wood was shot dead in her backyard by a hunter who mistook her white mittens for the flagging tail of a deer, it triggered renewed anger over the ease with which virtually anyone, having passed a basic hunter safety course and the minimum age requirement, can carry high-powered, state-of-the-art firearms into the woods.
Thus a deteriorating relationship with private landowners over safety concerns and property abuse is also taking vast chunks out of lands traditionally available to hunters. “I can’t ride my horse on my own property,” says Carolyn J. Wynn, who for years has waged a private war against hunt clubs leasing Georgia Pacific property adjacent to her 1,400-acre plantation in Wilkinson County. “They cut my fences, shoot my dogs. They litter. They’ve shot livestock. Law enforcement has even camped out on my property, but they never catch them.” Overcrowding of public lands has likewise tested tolerance for armed recreation. And a long-term decline in the percentage of Americans who hunt has dedicated sportsmen concerned over dwindling interest in perpetuating a field craft traditionally passed from father to son.
Two other factors beyond the control of sport hunters portend added calamity. Recent investigations into the Department of Agriculture’s furtive Animal Damage Control program have revealed widespread extermination of wildlife by government hunters and trappers, who compile a grisly toll of over 4 million birds and mammals per year, from marauding coyotes and cougars out west to displaced white-tailed deer at Peachtree City’s Falcon Field Airport. Similarly, poaching, driven by a gray market of wildlife curios and luxury items, trophy mounts, game meats and Asian pharmaceuticals, has reached intolerable levels. Strewing the woods with mutilated carcasses in the relentless pursuit of everything from deer antlers to black bear gall bladder, poachers are the first link of an animal parts merchandising chain that often sees markups greater than in the cocaine trade. Both animal control and poaching compound the pressures on America’s refuge wildlife, and to the often undiscerning public, tend to reflect unfortunately on anyone in the woods with a weapon.
Tenacious activists further contend that sport hunters are more than just innocent victims of the negative publicity poaching generates. “When we make a commercial market out of killing wildlife, the responsible hunter is de facto the protection under which poachers hide,” says John Eberhart of Georgia Earth Alliance.
Hunters have responded to this confluence of adverse circumstances with a proliferation of advocacy groups. Aside from coordinating hunters’ efforts to combat animal activists, national organizations such as Putting People First and United Conservation Alliance have also sought allies in the livestock, dairy, wool, fur, and biomedical research communities. Powerful shooting sports groups such as National Rifle Association and Ducks Unlimited are also shifting gears from general unpreparedness to a unified counterattack. Outdoor periodicals are now rife with articles, editorials and advertisements, ranging from hook-and-bullet alarmism to eloquent rebuttals to the aggressive and uncompromising antihunting movement. So-called Action Alerts are common, such as the call for donations recently placed in Georgia Sportsman by the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, a sportsmen’s rights organization that helped write many states’ harassment laws. The text below the caption ACT NOW TO SAVE HUNTING reads, “In 12 months all hunting in California could be stopped. . . . The courts have already stopped bow hunting for black bear. … In June, California voters banned mountain lion hunting . . . duck and dove hunting are next.”
It is one thing to stifle hunts for depleted species in California or a national park; quite another, however, to take away the Southerner’s quail shoot, his deer stands and duck blinds, and at the same time assault his moral integrity. In perhaps no region of the country, with the possible exception of the Rocky Mountain West, is hunting so socially entrenched as it is in the deep South. Thus far, outside of a few ominous rumblings, from Hilary Smith and a small band of activists picketing the annual hunting expo “Buckarama,” or in Wayne Pacelle’s scathing address to a conservation education convention at Rock Eagle, near Eatonton, Ga., there have been no major conflicts. Georgia likes its hunting: white-tailed deer pawing through autumn leaves; amorous tom gobblers luring in spring; and the aristocratic stance of a good pointer.
But Atlanta is the New South, traditional launching pad for social movements and a logical foothold for the anti-hunting movement. Animal-rights strength is historically bicoastal, markedly absent in the agricultural center of the country, where rural lifestyles foster value systems that justify animal use. As Pacelle notes, “Animal-rights issues are not decided along partisan lines, but along demographic ones.” And for Atlantans, white-collar isolation from animal death on the farm and in the woods could enhance the appeal of the anti-hunting message that one good way to start saving wildlife is to stop killing it.
ATLANTA IS DARK, and John Eberhart of Georgia Earth Alliance arrives for an interview. He juggles two armloads of research and alludes to an undercurrent of espionage that has both hunters and anti’s frequently trying to infiltrate one another’s organizations. Though Eberhart is a vegetarian with philosophic objections to killing animals, his study goes well beyond the emotional level, and instead challenges the prevailing hunter-dominated wildlife management system. “In no other instance does government represent such entrenched special interest,” he says, citing state agencies as the prime example. “The system is self-reinforcing, run by people who were hunters before they became wildlife managers.”
But at the heart of Eberhart’s research is money. All state game divisions are financed by hunting license sales and a federal allocation called Pittman-Robertson, an excise tax levied on a plethora of hunting-related items and distributed to each state on the basis of geographic size and number of licenses sold. Conceived by hunters as a way of securing an economic base for wildlife in the Dust Bowl era, the system has procured $1.7 billion for state wildlife management since 1937. But Eberhart and a host of other critics contend that hunter-financed wildlife management has evolved into a competitive and vicious cycle in which states unnecessarily manipulate ecosystems to favor game species and promote hunting in order to perpetuate funding. “Pittman-Robertson hardwired hunters and game managers together,” Eberhart says.
Eberhart is also concerned with Georgia Game and Fish’s (G&F) regular use of controlled burns to rejuvenate green browse, cutting timber to create “wildlife openings,” planting forage such as clover and then fertilizing it with chemicals, as well as flooding, draining and various other practices that augment a given area’s capacity to support wildlife.
These, however, are the very tools by which game management nationwide has been so successful in restoring the vitality of species as diverse as antelope and alligators, bison and beavers. Therefore, hunters see in Georgia G&F’s 1 million acres of Wildlife Management Area (WMA) a paradigm of man’s responsibility to provide for everything from wild deer to chickadees that, in dire environmental times, lack suitable habitat.
Anti-hunting activists accuse state systems of favoritism towards game species that are important to them economically, to the detriment of the vast majority of animals that require mature, undisturbed ecosystems. Historically, only about 15 percent of state Pittman-Robertson funds have been used to acquire habitat. The bulk, even hunters conceded, is spent on developing existing lands, sometimes to enhance species such as pheasant that are not even indigenous to North America. The irony, according to Sara Vickerman of Defenders of Wildlife, is that animals benefiting from wildlife management are usually already in abundance. “What managers should be doing is identifying and acquiring large blocks of habitat that are ecologically important to the widest range of native species,” she says. No wildlife resource agency in the country currently has a coherent approach to preventing mass extinctions of plant and animal life, Vickerman adds.
The game-bias argument is accredited by the fact that many Eastern states now face serious deer overpopulation problems.
Because of intense management, Georgia has the second-largest deer herd in the nation, but a steadily decreasing number of deer hunters, who are outnumbered by deer 4 to 1. Georgia G&F is currently spending $40,000 to study this decline and, to encourage more children to hunt, recently increased by seven the number of parent/child hunts on WMAs.
Game and Fish spokesperson Gib Johnston doesn’t accept that program as evidence of game bias. He says, “You’ll gather I have no damn truck with these people who say we only manage for hunters. Georgia WMAs are used more by nonhunters, those who hike, camp, fish and photograph. Sportsmen pay $15.60 for the privilege of hunting on a WMA. Anybody else can use them all year long without so much as a thank you.”
Georgia G&F also touts its Nongame Wildlife Fund as exemplary of management’s concern for the other 1,017-plus species of Georgia wildlife (238 of which are listed as threatened or endangered) that are not hunted and formerly had no economic support. Generated by appropriations, matching donations and a voluntary tax checkoff on personal income taxes, 100 percent of the funds are supposed to go toward nongame management efforts. But Eberhart isn’t easily satisfied, producing documents pulled from the Department of Natural Resources’ own files that show nongame tax money enrolled in several hunting-oriented programs, such as Georgia G&F’s Acres for Wildlife, which extends wildlife management practices to private landowners.
“Taking tax money from nonhunters through the nongame tax checkoff and using [it] to promote pro-hunting wildlife management is taxation without representation,” Eberhart says.
Eberhart also indicts Georgia’s nongame fund for subsidizing Project WILD, a supplementary curriculum implemented in the school systems of 49 states to teach conservation. Developed largely by the Western Association of Fish-and Wildlife Agencies, Project WILD is opposed by eight national animal-protection organizations, who claim it contains pro-hunting propaganda and is a biased attempt at securing hunting’s place in the future of wildlife management.
Ken Riddleberger, Georgia’s Project WILD coordinator, says, “We’ve made some revisions to try and represent everyone’s views,” adding what seems particularly insightful of the entire sport hunting debate: “Basically, both sides want their views presented to the exclusion of the other.”
This ever malleable issue of sport hunting, so nettlesome for state agencies, is also firmly lodged in the craw of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Today, about 260 of America’s 456 National Wildlife Refuges—the 90 million acres of ostensibly “inviolate sanctuary” that FWS manages—are open to some form of sport hunting or trapping.
Since about 1949 sportsmen and sportswomen have persistently lobbied efforts to open refuges to hunting and in the process, critics say, created the political loophole through which many other destructive uses on refuges have followed. A 1989 General Accounting Office report found America’s refuges pocked with mines, perforated by leaking oil and gas wells, commercially fished and timbered, overgrazed and ammoniated by ponderous cattle, ’dozed, drained and backfilled by the more ponderous Army Corps of Engineers, and almost unbelievably, bombed by our own military for target practice.
Though this litany of incompatible secondary uses is of paramount concern, the single issue of sport hunting on refuges has become by far the most contentious. Critics say that hunters’ demands for game also indirectly result in the Fish and Wildlife Service killing some of the animals refuges were meant to protect. They refer specifically to sanctioned trapping of duck egg-stealing fox, mink, skunk and raccoons, and the use of the euthanatizing agent T-61 by refuge managers to control other predators that compete with hunters for game.
Attempting to rectify what has become a serious identity crises for refuges, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has gone on the road with Refuges 2003, an environmental evaluation and public scoping process conducted in 31 cities across America. Attendance at these meetings had averaged only about 80 people, but when the Refuges 2003 planning team brought the show to Atlanta’s Lanier Plaza Hotel on March 11, things got hot down South.
Hunters, trappers and activists turned out in force, spurred by anti-hunting mailings and an Action Alert orchestrated by Georgia Outdoor News. The latter resulted in 18,712 comments to FWS from Georgia residents (over 55 percent of the total comments received nationwide). When it became obvious that sport hunting would be argued to the exclusion of other refuge concerns, FWS team planners turned off the lights, told everyone to go home and rescheduled.
Furious at the finger pointing, and perhaps concerned that abolition of hunting on refuges could trigger a domino effect on other public lands, hunters invoke the record of sportsmen’s dollars. The sale of duck stamps, for example, an obligatory tax on all who hunt waterfowl, has brought in an estimated $350 million since 1934, revenues sufficient to add nearly 4 million acres to the refuge system. Hunting’s detractors, however, claim that this is only 4.4 percent of all refuge lands, certainly not enough to validate the hunters’ suggestion that they have intrinsic rights there, especially when the system, the only federal lands specifically set aside for wildlife protection, represent less than 5 percent of all lands available to hunters.
But the decision to hunt or not on refuges is still up to the taxpayer. After all, unlike state game management, most of the FWS annual appropriations come out of the general treasury. Approximately 95 percent of refuge visitors are nonhunters, and if this is any indication of what the FWS’s final call will be, continuation of widespread hunting on refuges is at considerable risk.
Activists use the refuge question still another way to magnify sport hunting’s impact on wildlife. North American ducks, for which the wildlife refuge system provides vital habitat, are in serious decline. Drought, industrial contaminants and agriculture have destroyed 50 percent of American wetlands present in colonial times. As a result, 1985 FWS surveys revealed that duck populations had plummeted to their lowest level in 30 years. The 1990 fall flight forecast tied with 1989 as the second lowest on record.
Every year, however, hunters continue to take ducks, 6.2 million in the 1989-’90 season. But according to contemporary FWS theory, on which hunters post the scientific platform of their argument, compensatory mortality such as predation and starvation would likely equal the number of ducks killed by waterfowlers. In other words, the same number of ducks return North to breed every year whether hunted or not. “Hunting is just one of the mortality factors,” says Dr. Frank Bowers, Migratory Bird Coordinator for FWS’ Southeastern office in Atlanta. “And what we’re seeing over and over again is that it [hunting] is having very little impact on overall populations.”
A ban on duck hunting would also undercut an economic base dedicated to management of the species, to which Ducks Unlimited alone contributes $50 million annually. Waterfowlers have therefore consistently lobbied against moratoriums on duck hunting, claiming that this neglects the overriding responsibility to deal with habitat deficits.
Activists point to contradictions in the hunters’ position that they are not having a significant impact. “The fact that FWS is curtailing bag limits and dropping the number of hunting days refutes the hunter’s argument,” says Atlanta author and environmentalist Lewis Regenstein. “And hunting is the only controllable factor in the decline. Let’s take the pressure off now while the duck numbers are low to give them every advantage when favorable conditions return.”
Fund for Animals has lobbied for a complete ban on waterfowl hunting since the mid-’80s. As for sport hunters’ conservation efforts, one Fund pamphlet reads, “ . . . there seems something perverse in trying to produce ducks just to shoot them.”
Many types of hunting undoubtedly do traverse a fuzzy line separating sport and perversion. In Georgia, it is possible to shoot anything from hand-fed quail, raised in wire boxes until they are field released beside a dollop of commercial grain, to virtually tame African exotics on fenced enclosures. Every year hunters kill 50 million mourning doves, a great many of them taken in the South, where if doves aren’t the desired game, one can run down black bears, opossums or coons with dogs or shoot bobcats and foxes without limit. Though the bulk of Georgia hunters may opt for fairer chase of more traditional quarry such as deer, the veil of dubious practices has caused the general public to take a closer look at all of sport hunting.
As an environment-conscious generation begins to question justifications for sport hunting, most people are reluctant to wholeheartedly endorse a strict anti-hunting position. The movement’s extremism allows few concessions, and the same vigor that has generated widespread scrutiny of sport hunting tends to alienate mainstream environmentalists by confusing issues of morality with biological questions. Lewis Regenstein, a former vice-president of Fund for Animals in Washington, D.C., has since affiliated with the more moderate Humane Society of the United States. He says, “They [Fund for Animals] have done a lot of good, but as a conservationist who works with a variety of groups, I just don’t want to be associated with that extreme a viewpoint anymore.”
Anti-hunting philosophy does contain implications of a radical departure from the prevailing value system that justifies not only hunting and fishing, but man’s dependence on animals for everything from beefsteak to biomedical research. Follow it to conclusion and find nothing short of an evolutionary shift in the food chain, one that ends in total vegetarianism.
“They’d like to limit the argument to hunting or trapping or furs for their own purposes. But I think if you follow the thread of anti-hunting logic, you won’t come out where most Americans want to be,” says FWS public information officer Vicki Boatwright. “Hunters simply want to be allowed to hunt. The agenda of antihunters is much larger than just hunting . . . and the anti’s know very well that if the ultimate conclusion of their argument is vegetarianism, then they are never going to get the American public on their side.”
“I don’t think there’s any kind of hidden agenda,” says Wayne Pacelle of Fund for Animals, which strongly advocates vegetarianism among its members. “That’s an argument designed to obfuscate the issue. With that kind of logic, one can continue abominable practices because he doesn’t want to swallow the whole ethic.”
Somewhere amongst the hunters’ hype of the sportsman’s ethics and the antihunters’ prophecy of a new Eden lies the fate of American wildlife. Ironically, that focal point is slipping away from two groups more interested in having their way than developing solutions. Says Lewis Regenstein, “To be arguing about deer hunting when the survival of the human race is what’s really at stake seems to be misplacing priorities.”
Beleaguered by abuse of privileges and hamstrung by waning interest, sport hunting faces a new era of challenge, one in which hunters would probably benefit from nothing so much as their own call for reform. To expand their focus beyond game animals and trophy records, while making allowances for other predators would reassure an understandably cautious public. What is also clear, however, is a lack of understanding by anti-hunters—who see only suffering and death in the complex dynamic of the environment—that America could still lose vast segments of its wildlife heritage without ever firing another shot. ✦